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NWA EDITORAIL: On rental assistance, aggressive pursuit of qualified renters is vital

On rental assistance, aggressive aid is called for by NWA Democrat-Gazette | September 12, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

You certainly can argue all you want about whether the trillions of dollars Congress has doled out in response to the covid-19 pandemic was just the right tonic, not enough or too much.

Beyond that debate, though, one area Republicans, Democrats and those caught in the middle might be able to agree on is that money allocated for a certain purpose ought to reach those it was intended to reach.

Much of the funding spurred by the pandemic has, with some limitations, been sent across the country in an open-ended way, giving state and local governments leeway in determining how the money can best be spent. The reasons Congress handed out the money were mixed. Certainly, some of it was intended to directly support responses to covid-19, whether that was vaccination clinics or expansion of hospital beds or testing or any number of programs designed to fight the virus' spread. The funding was also intended to be a fiscal shot in the arm to prevent the U.S. economy from going into a tailspin.

And so debates rage in communities about how some of the money should be spent. In Benton and Washington counties, for example, county officials' discussions of spending millions of covid-related dollars on jail expansions are creating quite a stir.

That said, other piles of money aren't really open for debate. We point to the millions of dollars allocated specifically to help people who are behind on their rent payments because their financial situations have been upended by the pandemic's effects.

The state of Arkansas received $173 million in federal funding at the beginning of 2021 to distribute to renters in need. The state's three most populous counties -- Pulaski, Benton and Washington -- have each received their own rental assistance funding through the federal government. Those counties received $11.7 million, $8.4 million and $7.2 million, respectively.

Benton County's program appears to be the poster child for successful implementation. It established a relationship with the Springdale-based Excellerate Foundation for administering the program. Foundation officials say they anticipate the full $8.4 million will be distributed by the end of November.

For reasons neither that foundation nor Washington County leaders have explained, the Excellerate Foundation, according to Washington County Judge Joseph Wood, "decided not to manage Washington County's" rental assistance program.

Wood ultimately made arrangements with housing authorities in Fayetteville and Springdale to distribute $1.5 million each to renters or landlords. The county then set up its own program to allocate the rest, using an online application system.

Washington County's approach has drawn the most criticism in Northwest Arkansas, perhaps in part because of the presence of active advocacy groups more than willing to offer their thoughts. They say residents in need run into a system that's too complex and cumbersome, requiring a level of tenacity some renters won't have.

Wood told a reporter he knows Washington County's system is behind.

"I recognize we have ground to make up," Wood said in a statement reported in a news story last Sunday. "I am confident we are closing the gap by setting up a Washington County online portal through the county website and disbursing funds directly through the Washington County treasurer. We issued our first batch of checks on July 21 and have since disbursed $181,997."

Conservatives Republicans on Washington County's Quorum Court at times have expressed philosophical disagreement with some of the federal funding made available to or through the county. One justice of the peace even suggested giving the money back because the county shouldn't be "giving away" money.

Such attitudes have no doubt limited just how aggressively Washington County has been willing to pursue helping those in need. But the money is there for a specific, intended purpose. It should reach the people in need and the programs to achieve that should be promoted and streamlined as much as possible.

That's exactly what prompted Gov. Asa Hutchinson last week to make changes to the state's rental assistance program, which, as of midweek, had committed $9.8 million of the $173 million provided for rental assistance in the state's other 72 counties.

Until last week, landlords had to submit matching applications for tenants to receive assistance, but some landlords weren't cooperating. Now, Hutchinson said, the state will give the money directly to tenants if their landlords aren't responsive.

The program will also now prioritize tenants who have received eviction notices, Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson faced pressure from local nonprofit groups as well as U.S. Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, who sent a letter to Hutchinson and four other governors in states where rental assistance has been lagging.

For the state and in Washington County, there is a sense that some improvements are being made. State and county officials, however, need to aggressively pursue policies that help promote the availability of the funds, that streamline the processes for applying for them and bridge language barriers that can discourage non-English speakers from applying.

Wood recently cited a partnership with the Marshallese Educational Initiative to assist in reaching the significant number of Arkansas residents who hail from the Marshall Islands. That's certainly a step in the right direction and the kind of measure that can ensure people in need get the help that's available.

Hutchinson suggested last week that even after every application received so far is approved, the state won't have committed all of the funding it's received. Was $173 million more than Arkansas renters needed? Perhaps so. Just because Congress establishes a number doesn't mean it's a reflection of reality on the ground.

But the responsibility of local and state officials is to do everything within their powers to connect the funding to the people in need. It appears that is still a work in progress.

More News

What’s the point?

Amid signs of some progress, the state and Washington County need to step up their game on covid-related rental assistance.

Print Headline: Overdue

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